Planetary Defense Team Designs a Spacecraft to Deflect Asteroids

The Bennu asteroid.

Deflecting the massive asteroid 101955 Bennu was the focus of recent research by a national planetary defense team. Bennu will make a very close approach to Earth on Sept. 25, 2135. (Image: via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) scientists are part of a national planetary defense team that designed a conceptual spacecraft to deflect asteroids that are Earth-bound, and evaluated whether it would be able to nudge a massive asteroid — which has a remote chance of hitting Earth in 2135 — off course. The design and case study are outlined in a paper published recently in Acta Astronautica.

The 9-meter-tall, 8.8-ton spacecraft — dubbed HAMMER (Hypervelocity Asteroid Mitigation Mission for Emergency Response vehicle) — features a modular design that would enable it to serve as either a kinetic impactor, essentially a battering ram, or as a transport vehicle for a nuclear device.

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Its possible mission: Deflect 101955 Bennu, a massive asteroid around 500 meters (more than five football fields) in diameter and weighing around 79 billion kilograms (1,664 times as heavy as the Titanic), circling the Sun at around 63,000 miles per hour.

Based on observation data available, the Bennu has a 1 in 2,700 chance of striking Earth on Sept. 25, 2135, and it is estimated that the kinetic energy of this impact would be equivalent to 1,200 megatons (80,000 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb).

The effort is part of a national planetary defense collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which includes LLNL and Los Alamos National Laboratory. (LANL).

Of the three prongs of planetary defense, NASA is responsible for the first, detecting asteroids with enough time to mitigate the risk. The LLNL planetary defense team is the technical lead on the second prong, mitigation of the threat of asteroids hitting Earth. The LLNL team also supports the third prong emergency response should mitigation fail.

The 8.8-ton conceptual HAMMER spacecraft (right) to deflect asteroids.
The 8.8-ton conceptual HAMMER spacecraft (right) is designed to fit within the Delta IV Heavy, the world’s second highest-capacity launch vehicle in operation, surpassed only by SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. (Image: via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Spacecraft to deflect asteroids

The preferred approach to mitigating any threats from asteroids would be to deflect it by ramming a kinetic impactor into it, delivering a gentle nudge large enough and soon enough to slow it down and change its collision course with Earth, but not so large that the object breaks apart.

This study helped quantify the threshold where a kinetic impactor would no longer be an effective deflection option. To evaluate this threshold, researchers focused on determining how many HAMMER spacecraft impactors it would take to deflect asteroids like Bennu.

If the decision was made to embark on a mission to deflect Bennu, researchers estimate that it would take a minimum of 7.4 years before an impulse could be delivered to the Earth-bound object.

This includes the time it would take to build the spacecraft, plan the mission, and travel to the object. Assuming the impactor successfully hits the asteroid, slowing it down slightly, it would take many years for the small change in speed to accumulate into a sufficient change in trajectory.

The researchers evaluated a number of deflection scenarios in this study, ranging from launching 10 years before impact to 25 years before. In the 10-year scenarios, it was determined that it could take between 34 and 53 launches of the Delta IV Heavy rocket, each carrying a single HAMMER impactor, to make Bennu-class asteroids miss the Earth.

If there were a 25-year lead time, that number could be reduced to 7-11 launches. The exact number would depend on the desired Earth-miss-distance and the impact conditions at the asteroid.

Just how large an asteroid could a single impactor deflect? Researchers determined that a single HAMMER impactor could deflect an object 90 meters in diameter by around 1.4 Earth radii with 10 years of lead time — from the time of launch to anticipated Earth impact.

If they needed less of a deflection, around a quarter of the Earth’s radius, a single impactor could be effective on an object as large as 152 meters in diameter in this same scenario.

The paper concluded that using a single HAMMER spacecraft as a battering ram would prove inadequate for deflecting asteroids like Bennu. While recent simulations of nuclear deflection scenarios are not included in this paper — they will be included in a companion paper to be submitted for publication in the near future — the findings suggest that the nuclear option may be required with larger objects like Bennu.

The nuclear approach carries the potential to deposit much more energy into an object like Bennu, causing a greater change in speed and trajectory.

This 2013 plot by NASA JPL shows the orbits of potentially hazardous (more than 140 meters in diameter) near Earth objects that pass within 4.7 million miles of Earth’s orbit.
This 2013 plot by NASA JPL shows the orbits of potentially hazardous (more than 140 meters in diameter) near-Earth objects that pass within 4.7 million miles of Earth’s orbit. Earth’s orbit is represented by the darker black circle. (Image: via Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Unlike popular portrayals of a nuclear deflection mission — like the movie “Armageddon” — the nuclear deflection approach would consist of detonating a nuclear explosive some distance from the asteroid.

This would flood one side of the asteroid with X-rays, vaporizing a layer of the surface, which would create rocket-like propulsion as vaporized material is ejected from the object. Unlike a kinetic impactor, the amount of energy deposited into an asteroid with a nuclear device could be tuned by adjusting how far it is from the asteroid when detonated.

Because Bennu regularly passes close enough to Earth for radar observations, researchers are able to estimate its orbit with enough accuracy to give a few decades’ warning as to whether it’s bound to impact the Earth.

This near-Earth Bennu fly-by happens every six years. But for other objects that do not regularly pass close enough to Earth for radar observations, much more uncertainty exists.

If limited to telescopic observations, it’s possible that researchers may not be 100 percent certain of an impact until less than a year before the collision.

In a scenario where there is too little time to mount an effective deflection mission, the last option may be robust disruption via nuclear explosive, though the window of opportunity would be very tight. A robust disruption scenario would envision breaking the asteroid into a number of smaller pieces.

Bennu is one of more than 10,000 near-Earth objects found by NASA so far, and scientists estimate that this is just a fraction of the objects that come within about 28 million miles of Earth, close enough to where impact with Earth can’t be precluded due to the uncertainty in the object’s path.

The good news is that most of these objects are much smaller than Bennu. NASA’s Center for Near Earth Object Studies lists just over 2,500 near-Earth objects that are potentially as large as Bennu.

Provided by: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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